Handicrafts

Handicraft activities like needlepoint, woodworking, and sewing served both functional and recreational purposes, especially during the winter months when farm duties were less pressing.

In a time long before malls and online shopping, ready-made goods and raw materials were scarce or available at distant city centres. To save money, cut down on transportation costs, and support the local economy, many people bought supplies close to home and made what they needed by hand. For example, clothing was cheaper to make than to buy. A nightgown said to have belonged to Lamira Billings, was handmade c.1840-1850 from high quality material.

 
1982.0002.0004Nightgown 1840-1850A ruffled collar accents this otherwise plain ankle-length cotton nightgown. It was handmade and of high quality. It is believed to have belonged to Lamira Billings.

TITLE Nightgown
DATE
1840-1850
ITEM NUMBER
1982.0002.0004
DESCRIPTION
A ruffled collar accents this otherwise plain ankle-length cotton nightgown. It was handmade and of high quality. It is believed to have belonged to Lamira Billings.

People often bought basics such as fabric, lumber, tools, thread and needles from local merchants. Numerous receipts and other documents in the Billings Collection show that the Family patronized local suppliers from at least 1839 onwards. One receipt from 1848 lists typical items bought, including fabric, sewing supplies, and clothing accessories. [MG001-3-1278.] Lumber was supplied by the family sawmill, operated by Braddish since 1823, and run by his son Samuel when Samuel finished his schooling.

Tables, cupboards, and beds graced the homes of many pioneers, but such furnishings were either laboriously hand-made or laboriously imported. Either way, they were valuable pieces. When Lamira Billings travelled to the Billings homestead as a new bride, one of her more valuable possessions was a bed frame, which she transported from Merrickville by canoe.

Men and women often worked together to create decorative pieces of furniture. For example, men constructed chair frames and women embroidered needlepoint seats and cushions.

 

1988.0001.0002b(2)
Embroidered Chair ca. 1850
The design on this chair depicts two women.  Other embroidered chairs in the collection feature flowers in a circular pattern and a scene with two men.  It is possible that Sabra and Sally embroidered these pieces.

TITLE Wooden Chair with Embroidered Seat Cushion
DATE
ca.1850
ITEM NUMBER
1988.0001.0002b(2)
DESCRIPTION
The design on this chair depicts two women. Other embroidered chairs in the collection feature flowers in a circular pattern and a scene with two men. It is possible that Sabra and Sally embroidered these pieces

This chair is one of a set of four. Each chair is decorated with a different Berlin Woolwork embroidery design. Berlin Woolwork is a style of embroidery that developed in Germany and became popular in Britain and North America. It involved stitching an elaborate pattern from printed instructions onto canvas using brightly coloured wool thread. Since the canvas was quite durable, many women used it for a variety of practical accessories and household objects.

Handicrafts allowed early settlers to showcase their skills and artistry. Challenging needlepoint pieces, impressive pieces of furniture, and complicated dress patterns all testified to the skill of the maker. When learning how to embroider, women often practiced by making ‘samplers.’ Two samplers from the Billings Collection exhibit rows of letters and numbers.

   

1978.0008.0742
Needlework Sampler 1800s. 
Sampler from the Billings Collection exhibits rows of letters and numbers.

1978.0008.0743
Needlework Sampler 1835
Sampler completed by S.Billings depicts letters, numbers, and family initials.

TITLE Needlework Sampler
DATE
ca.1800s
ITEM NUMBER
1978.0008.0742
DESCRIPTION
Sampler from the Billings Collection exhibits rows of letters and numbers.

TITLE Needlework Sampler
DATE
1835
ITEM NUMBER
1978.0008.0743
DESCRIPTION
Sampler completed by S.Billings depicts letters, numbers, and family initials.

As skills became more familiar, patterns also became more advanced. One elaborate needlepoint piece created by Sally Billings in 1835 depicts a two-storey house and vines.

 

1978.0008.0741a
Needlework Sampler 1835
An elaborate needlepoint piece created by Sally Billings in 1835 depicts a two-storey house and vines

TITLE Needlework Sampler
DATE
1835
ITEM NUMBER
1978.0008.0741a
DESCRIPTION
. An elaborate needlepoint piece created by Sally Billings in 1835 depicts a two-storey house and vines

Like other art forms, handicrafts can show shades of meaning. Women could use needlepoint to express opinions on political or social issues. Gatherings such as quilting bees and embroidery exchanges gave women the opportunity to gather and socialize, producing work for practical reasons amidst a setting of friendship. Women often exchanged their patterns from magazines or template books on order. Sally Billings had one of these manuals. Dated from 1866, it contains a number of needlework patterns.

 

MG001-16-090
Ornamental Stitches for Patchwork Patterns ca. 1885
Patchwork patterns booklet with handwritten inscription “Sally Billings, June 9th, 1886

TITLE Ornamental Stitches for Patchwork Patterns
DATE
ca. 1885
ITEM NUMBER
MG001-16-090
DESCRIPTION
Patchwork patterns booklet with handwritten inscription “Sally Billings, June 9th, 1886.

Handicrafts also reflect society’s idea of gender roles: women sewed, painted, and embroidered, while men focused on woodworking and making furniture. The collection does not have a lot of written documentation on handicrafts made by the Billings men. It does, however, have handmade furniture pieces as well as a number of woodworking tools and lathes. Since ready-made furniture was difficult for early settlers to purchase and transport, it’s possible that the Billings men used these tools to build and carve the furniture found on the estate.

 

1978.0002.0920
Wooden Cupboard no date
Pine corner cupboard. V-shaped so it fits properly into a corner. Two glazed upper doors with ten panels; two doors at base each with inset panel.

TITLE Wooden Cupboard
DATE
18--.
ITEM NUMBER
1978.0002.0920
DESCRIPTION
Pine corner cupboard. V-shaped so it fits properly into a corner. Two glazed upper doors with ten panels; two doors at base each with inset panel.

The interest in handicraft and sewing was not exclusive to the nineteenth century. A machine embroidered piece of ribbon, while impossible to know if it was a gift or made by one of the Billings Family, was treasured and preserved because of the number of hours required to make it, even with machine help.

A receipt from 1920 shows that the Billings Family had a Singer sewing machine and table for making clothes and other items, which allowed its members to remain in style and to keep up with changing fashion trends.

 

MG001-09-183
Singer Sewing Machine Operating Booklet 1920
Instruction booklet for the Singer sewing machine.  Machines quickly outdated hand sewing—especially for major pieces--and they were available in Canada possibly as early as the 1860s, having gone into mass production in America in the 1850s.

TITLE Singer Sewing Machine Operating Booklet
DATE
1920
ITEM NUMBER
MG001-09-183
DESCRIPTION
Instruction booklet for the Singer sewing machine. Machines quickly outdated hand sewing—especially for major pieces--and they were available in Canada possibly as early as the 1860s, having gone into mass production in America in the 1850s.

 

 
1978.0008.0495.4Singer Sewing Machine ca. 1920Cast-iron treadle type Singer Family machine - a drop head model that lowers into a wooden table cabinet painted green. Machine decorated in gilt with a sphinx design.

TITLE Singer Sewing Machine
DATE
ca. 1920
ITEM NUMBER
1978.0008.0495.4
DESCRIPTION
Cast-iron treadle type Singer Family machine - a drop head model that lowers into a wooden table cabinet painted green. Machine decorated in gilt with a sphinx design.

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